HAPPY: Wolverines ballin’ heading into showdown with MSU

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — It was billed as a defensive showdown that would likely end in an ugly, close victory for whatever side was stingier.

But Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wasn’t buying into the hype during his Monday press conference ahead of Saturday’s game against No. 13 Northwestern.

He brushed aside all that defense-against-defense talk, saying that the defenses wouldn’t be playing each other, that he needed his No. 18 Wolverines to execute well in all three phases of the game — special teams, offense and defense — to finish on the winning end.

Well, Harbaugh got what he asked for and more in a 38-0 victory on homecoming day at Michigan Stadium.

"All three phases had great success today," Harbaugh said. "The fellas came out ballin’ right from the start."

From the very, very start, when Jehu Chesson took the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown. It continued with a pair of scoring drives the next two times Michigan (5-1) got the ball. And all day long, the defense was in lock-down mode again, pushing the Wildcats around like a shopping cart without a squeaky wheel.

It was the third straight shutout for the Wolverines, who haven’t been scored on since the fourth quarter against UNLV on Sept. 19 and have given up just 38 points — No. 1 in the country — all season long.

Let that sink in. Three. Consecutive. Shutouts.

The 1997 national championship team — the one hailed for its outstanding defense — had just one shutout during its undefeated season. The Wolverines haven’t been this remarkable on defense for three straight games since blanking Indiana, Wisconsin and Purdue near the end of the 1980 season.

"Still room for improvement," Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers said. "We have a lot of talented guys who take pride in what we do. The sky’s the limit."

Yikes for the opposition because this was total domination against a Northwestern (5-1) team that was supposed to be pretty good at running the ball (averaging about 200 yards) and especially solid on defense, where the Wildcats came into the game having allowed just 35 points all season.

"With a couple of exceptions, we shut down their running game," Harbaugh said. "Our guys were in their hip pocket on every rout, and the pass rush was intense. All three phases were at the highest level."

Chesson’s kickoff-return touchdown was his second big play in as many weeks. In the 28-0 victory at Maryland, he scored on a 66-yard jet sweep.

"That really got us going today," said Peppers, who was back there on the return team with Chesson and had a great view of his teammate dashing down the field.

Quarterback Jake Rudock (17-of-23 for 179 yards) played clean and controlled, protecting the ball and running for a 2-yard score to make it 21-0 late in the first quarter.

After resting his right ankle last week, De’Veon Smith (59 yards on eight carries) returned and showed some of the flash he had during his 125-yard effort in the Sept. 26 victory over BYU.

"No rust at all," Harbaugh said.

The victory marked Michigan’s first against an opponent ranked 13th or higher since Sept. 27, 2008, when the Wolverines beat No. 9 Wisconsin 27-25.

Michigan’s only setback was senior linebacker James Ross’ ejection for targeting. Unless there’s an appeal process, Ross — a key reserve — will have to sit out the first half next week against Michigan State.

"We’ll look at it," Harbaugh said.

Now that Michigan has equaled its 2014 victory total and has won in impressive fashion for three consecutive weeks, the question is: Are they on an accelerated schedule with Harbaugh in charge?

The answer could come as soon as next week, when the No. 4 Spartans visit Ann Arbor. They’ve won six of their last seven meetings with the Wolverines and outscored them 64-17 combined in the previous two games, both decisive victories in East Lansing.

But that was then, under coach Brady Hoke — a guy who apparently couldn’t get the most out of his touted recruiting classes.

It feels different now with Harbaugh running the show, that the underachievers have finally picked it up, are maybe even overachieving and ready to contend for a Big Ten title — perhaps more — right now, not somewhere down the road.

At the very least, Mark Dantonio and his Spartans must have a seed of doubt — a slightly nervous tummy — about coming to the Big House and facing Harbaugh’s Wolverines.

As for Saturday’s sellout crowd, they can hardly wait.

With 2 minutes left in the game and Michigan again holding Northwestern at bay in its own end, a "We want Sparty" chant could be heard, then later got drowned out by a rousing "DEFENSE! DEFENSE! DEFENSE!" salute.

Said Harbaugh: "Impressive. Congratulations. Next."

What happens next will tell us a whole lot about Harbaugh’s team.